...a technological marvel and a better-than-average movie


Video game-based movies have received a bum rap ever since the horribly bad "Super Mario Bros." made its debut way back in 1993. It was followed up by a string of what I would like to call, movie beat-em-ups: "Fatal Fury," "Double Dragon," "Street Fighter" and "Mortal Kombat." For a while, it seemed as if the only video game genre worth translating to celluloid was the fighting one.

In the video gaming community, one of the most beloved RPGs (role-playing games) is Square Company's (later, the company became Square Enix) "Final Fantasy" series. The first game in that series made its North American debut on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) back in 1990. Since then, Square has made eleven other games that bear the same "Final Fantasy" moniker, culminating in 2006's "Final Fantasy XII." From "Final Fantasy VII" onwards, Square has released its FF games exclusively for Sony's Playstation game consoles (not taking into account the numerous remakes later on). As you can see, Sony has had a close working relationship with Square since the mid-90s. So, when Square Pictures, the computer animation film division of Square Company began work on a feature-length CG film based on the "Final Fantasy" world, it was only natural that Sony stepped in to distribute and market the resulting film through its Columbia Pictures arm.

Despite Sony's best efforts in aggressively marketing it, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" bombed big time at the box office, losing well over $100 million, effectively bankrupting Square Pictures. With the massive loss, so too went Sony's big hopes of creating a new film franchise based on the commercially viable "Final Fantasy" brand name. This was rather was unfortunate because "FF:TSW" had a great gimmick (if you can call it that) that it could tout. This film was to be the vehicle used to usher in a new era in computer animation technology by creating photorealistic computer-generated human beings. There was even speculation within certain circles that this technology might be eventually used to replace human actors! For the most part, the animation technology used by the animators at Square Pictures is quite astounding. Some might complain that the characters had a wax figure-like look to them but I have to disagree--just look at the realistic strands of hair on each character and one would be hard pressed not to be blown away. Without a doubt, Square Pictures did an amazing job and from a technical standpoint and they probably achieved their goal of creating photorealistic human characters. "The Polar Express" tried to achieve the same goal with a different animation process several years later and it probably looked worse than what we saw on "FF:TSW."

Setting aside debate about the animation technology for a moment, the question becomes, is the film really that bad? Contrary to the general consensus, it really isn't. Now, it certainly is not an Oscar-worthy film but the sci-fi laden story is engaging enough to hold my attention. Well, at least until the final act when all the mystery behind the alien invasion that had been building up till then is simply wasted on a rather predictable and run of the mill ending.

While it may carry the "Final Fantasy" name, "FF:TSW" is actually an entirely new narrative and thematically, has nothing to do with any of the already released video games. Set in the year 2065, "FF:TSW" tells the story of an Earth that has been mostly destroyed by an invading alien race known as the Phantoms. What remains of the human race are now barricaded within cities that are protected by powerful shields that help keep the marauding Phantoms out. These Phantoms kill by taking the lifeforce out of every living thing that it comes in contact with.

Two scientists, Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are working on a controversial hypothesis called the Gaia Theory that seeks to explain how the planet's lifeforce or spirit, the Gaia, is somehow intertwined with the aliens'. Their theory states that if the Phantoms were destroyed, the Earth's Gaia would also be destroyed as well. Both scientists are on a mission to track down a total of eight "spirits" that, when brought together would create a contradictory "waveform" to counter the aliens' lifeforce. I know what you are thinking--just take it with a pinch of salt. As you can imagine, this mumbo-jumbo is hardly a very popular theory with the military wing of the government. Led by General Hein (James Woods), the military has just finished constructing the Zeus cannon, a weapon designed to finally destroy the Phantoms once and for all. Assisted by Ross' former beau, Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his squad of loyal soldiers, Ross must now battle both time and the military and find the remaining "spirits" before Hein is able to unleash Zeus and possibly destroy the planet and mankind itself.

Now, the movie's premise may be a bit far-fetched and hard to wrap your head around but it really boils down to the basic sci-fi tenets of misunderstood invading creatures and science versus military might. If you break it down that way then it may sound simple yet there is an underlying complexity with the origins of the Phantoms and the Gaia theory that provides an aura of mystery to pique one's interest. This is my third time watching this movie and although I got a little more cynical about the plot with each subsequent viewing, the animation and visuals continue to wow me, especially now that it is in high-definition. For those who didn't like the movie the first time round, maybe it is time to give it another go. Like a lot of the high-definition re-releases of older movies, the level of enjoyment seems to increase in parallel with the increase of the picture's resolution.

Back in 2001, the release of this movie on DVD provided a rare glimpse of how stunning a digital-to-digital transfer would look, even in 480p standard definition. For a while, it was the standard by which all subsequent DVD releases were compared against. While it may have looked stunning back then but get ready to be wowed all over again.

Sony has released "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" on Blu-ray in spectacular 1080p resolution, encoded using the AVC/MPEG-4 encoder format. Displayed in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the transfer is exceptionally clean, almost pristine. The level of detail is amazing with each strand of hair and even skin texture strikingly clear, exhibiting a great sense of depth even at that minute level. Colors are nicely saturated with natural-looking skin tones and black levels that are discernable. If the animators were going for photorealism in this movie, they have finally achieved it with this high-definition Blu-ray release.

With the video transfer setting the bar so high, the audio presentation is no slouch either. With the newly minted uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/4.6Mbps), Sony has brought new life to the film. A sci-fi action film is the perfect platform to showcase the quality of high-definition audio and in the case of "FF:TSW," it does not disappoint. The dynamic range of the audio is wide as well as very active, providing plenty of directionality in the surround channels and a lively .1 LFE effect. Dialogue is crisp and clear with nary a hint of distortion. Volume level is also spot on, exhibiting none of the extreme highs and lows typical of action-oriented films.

Other audio options provided on this disc are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, encoded at the much lower 640kbps bitrate. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, French, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and Chinese.

Essentially, all the extras--except for a third commentary track by composer Elliot Goldenthal and the "Storyboard/Playblast" feature--from the previously released 2-disc Special Edition DVD version have been reproduced here and they are all presented in standard-definition 480p resolution.

Starting things off, there are two audio commentaries: the first with animation director Andy Jones, staging director Tani Kunitake and editor Chris S. Capp and the second with co-director Moto Sakakbara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets and props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama and "Phantom" supervisor Takoo Naguchi. Both commentaries can get pretty technical because these guys are essentially the people behind the creation of various technological aspects of the movie. The second commentary track is entirely spoken in Japanese with English subtitles.

Moving on, we have a 30-minute interactive documentary titled, "The Making of Final Fantasy." The interactivity here means that during the documentary, you can branch off to access additional material like new video segments, optional audio commentary or each of the seven main characters' background in "Character Files." This last feature, "Character Files" can also be accessed outside this documentary as a separate feature. This documentary is made up of various interviews and the most important one here is with director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who reveals that the lead character Aki, is actually named after his mother.

Next, we have a bunch of short features. In "Vehicle Scale Comparison," we are shown a montage of images detailing three of the vehicles that appear in the film: Bandit, Black Boa and Quatro. "Trailer Explorations" takes an inside look at how trailers are used so effectively to market a film. Also included are the film's theatrical and teaser trailers. "The Gray Project" is actually a series of test images that are done up in gray, hence the name. In "Matte Art Exploration," a computer illustrator shows us how mattes or background images are created. "Compositing Builds" goes into a demonstration of how different layers of effects are put together. "More Boards/Blast" shows a scene that is made up of a mix of storyboards, rendered footages and concept art material. You can also watch the show's "Original Opening" that is nowhere as effective as the final version that you see in the film. Next you have "Aki's Dream Reconstruction," an expanded 15-minute dream sequence. Last but not least, we have "Joke Outtakes," a funny series of "fake" bloopers courtesy of the animators.

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" comes packaged in a regular Blu-ray case accompanied by an advertising insert.

Film Value:
Directed by legendary game developer and the creator of the "Final Fantasy" series, Hironobu Sakaguchi, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is both a technological marvel and a better-than-average movie that only falls short in its use of corny dialogue and its rather predictable ending. The various concepts put forward by this movie is intriguing enough to keep most anyone with a penchant for science fiction interested long enough to complete the movie. It may not be the most satisfying movie you would ever watch but entertained, you would be. Now on Blu-ray, there is no better time to catch up with "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" once again.


Film Value